Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in Azerbaijan where hundreds of thousands of people once lived and worked, is today a desolate landscape pockmarked by abandoned tanks and crumbling stone edifices. It’s a place few outsiders have seen since the early 1990s, when a still-unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia killed roughly 25,000 people and drove 1 million more from their homes.
Louis O’Neill has toured the area, and his research there may hasten the peace process between the two countries.
O’Neill, a White House fellow assigned to the U.S. State Department’s Office of Russian Affairs, traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh’s seven occupied territories in late January as part of a fact-finding mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Though a cease-fire in the predominantly ethnic Armenian region has held since 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia remain deadlocked over ownership of the land.
“You could drive for hours and not see a person, and every home is destroyed and every home has been looted,” O’Neill says of the area. “It’s a very sobering place.”
Fluent in Russian, he spent two weeks interviewing Armenian settlers in the region and co-authored a subsequent report to the committee that he says has helped “kick-start” negotiations between the two countries. In March, he was awarded the State Department’s Franklin Award for outstanding contribution to the team’s efforts.
O’Neill, 37, is one of 12 White House Fellows, a nonpartisan public service training program founded during the Johnson administration by John W. Gardner, ’33, MA ’36. The yearlong program grants participants work in the highest levels of government agencies and regular off-the-record meetings with high-ranking officials. The visits offer unexpected networking benefits. Upon learning, in a June meeting with fellows, that O’Neill had been co-captain of the Stanford cycling team, President Bush invited him on a mountain-bike ride.
Prior to the fellowship, O’Neill worked as a criminal prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The New York City native studied Russian as an undergrad at Stanford before heading to Moscow on a Fulbright scholarship. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he worked with the Russian parliament to help the country reform its legal system following the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The White House fellowship “is just an incredible expansion of your mind,” O’Neill says. “You realize that all these problems we face are totally vexing, but you can do something about them.”